11th Hour approaches 11th season with new risks

11th Hour Theatre Company showcases seldom-seen musicals in its new season.

“The 11th Hour” is the final hour before a deadline. 11 years ago, this expression was the last thing members of a soon-to-be theater company thought of when trying to name their group.

Today, 11th Hour is preparing for its fourth Next Step Concert Series. With only 20 hours of rehearsal time, the production is a testament to the company’s name.

Running November through June, the series involves staged readings of new and unknown musicals, offering a  theatrical experience unlike most blockbuster productions.

“As a company, we always strive to create story-driven musicals,” co-founder and artistic director Michael O’Brien said. “It’s never about spectacle for us. It’s about the content.”

The concert series was established to shed light on new and seldom seen works. Prior to the birth of the concert series, the company aimed at producing three full-length shows per season.

During this strenuous process, the company found themselves sacrificing the quality of the work and not concentrating on shows they truly wanted to feature.

The Next Step Concert Series was the solution.

“[Starting the series] made a huge impact on the company, because it allowed us to produce all season long … it also allowed us to really take risks,” O’Brien said.

The company works under the Actors’ Equity Association contract for 29-hour readings, sparing them just 20 hours of preparation for one concert with the other nine dedicated to the performances themselves.

“It’s actually a blessing to have these intense, 20-hour rehearsals,” 11th Hour co-founder, resident director and sister to Michael, Megan O’Brien said. “It forces everyone to trust their instincts and to rely on each other.”

Although the company works through limited rehearsal hours, the musicals are decided nearly a year before the series begins.

At the beginning of every year, four of the company’s core producers and founders congregate, each offering a prospective musical to be featured in the series. The four different musicals are then showcased.

The Next Step Concert Series includes a medley of musicals, varying from Tony-awarding winning works like “Big Fish,” to musicals still in development. The productions feature an accompanying five-piece band and intricate lighting elements.

This season, which coincidentally is its 11th, entails exceptional risk because for the first time the series is featuring two new musicals, “Factory Girls” and “Big Red Sun,” cultivated through the National Alliance for Musical Theatre.

While working with new musicals in a narrow timeframe, the editing process unfolds as the show carries on its three-day run.

“Doing new productions allows the audience to see a work in progress, while also allowing us to test out material,” Michael O’Brien said.

Although the series doesn’t encompass fully-produced shows with costumes and sets, the actors are not bound by script books and music stands.

“We strive to show what musical theater can be, showing that it’s not just about singing and dancing, but it’s much more about the acting,” Michael O’Brien said.

Megan O’Brien added these shows in such a raw form gives audiences room to use their own imaginations, because spectacle is not the enticing element.

“It’s really just the actors and their words and that strips it down to just the story we’re trying to tell,” she said. ­­

The Next Step Concert Series begins Nov. 7.

Grace Maiorano can be reached at grace.maiorano@temple.edu.

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